a season in purgatory

I have recurring dreams. Nightmares, actually. I had the one that scares me the most last night. The one I don’t talk about. The one I haven’t had in almost a year. It sits in the back of my mind waiting to pounce, to remind me it’s still there. Not done with me yet. And so, I woke at 5am this morning, bolt upright in my bed with tears streaming down my face, vomiting into my cupped hands.

Yeah, it’s just that bad.

Several weeks into my father’s limbo coma-like state and shortly after I became his legal guardian and conservator, I made two appointments. The first was with a long-term care facility in our old neighborhood, which, I won’t lie, was a fucking surreal experience I don’t ever want to fucking discuss. The other was with the palliative care team at the hospital. I felt kind of strange about the latter for several reasons. First, it seemed like I was giving up on my Dad to talk to folks about end-of-life decisions, especially during a week where my brother and I had actually gotten him awake and alert and weening off of his ventilator. We were working on getting him talking. He was giving it his all — what all he had. It seemed like we were turning the corner. On an upswing. Why would I be talking to the team that helps people die? The other issue I had is that I felt kind of silly — like I was being dramatic and alarmist. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t happening. Talk of palliative care and hospice-in-situ was for people with cancer and other terminal illnesses. For people who were really sick and dying. Not my dad. He’d just had an accident. He wasn’t that sick. Was I in for a surprise.

The meeting took place in a small conference room on my Dad’s floor. It was clean and neat and cozy. I sat at a table with two other women — the doctor who was in charge of the palliative care unit, and the unit’s care coordinator. The doctor was a small, quiet, but no nonsense Filipina in her 40s. The coordinator was a smiling, attractive blonde woman in her 30s with larger presence. A social worker by trade, she seemed custom-built to simultaneously inform and comfort. Something about her size and her face made me feel safe. Like, for the first time in longer than I could recall, I was in the room with someone who could bar the door and protect me from all the monsters on the other side who were trying to get through it and claw me to pieces. Someone who was ready, willing, and able to stand between me and It and provide some breathing space. I remember thinking that I never wanted to leave that room.

Neither woman sugar-coated anything for me. Both expressed a great deal of relief that I had initiated the meeting. Said they had been hoping and waiting for me to call on them. I was surprised. Didn’t understand. Why would they care? Why would they even notice my father’s case in that giant, seven-floor facility? My father wasn’t that sick. They opened the meeting by quickly disabusing me of that notion.

“Your father is one of the sickest people we have in this hospital. You are not overreacting.”

I was stunned. At a complete loss for words. I sat there with my mouth hanging open, incredulous. I stared at the back my hands spread palms-down on the table, thinking how ridiculous they looked, small and weak and completely futile trying to grip something solid and find some purchase as the world tilted and spun around me. Wondered why I hadn’t brought anyone with me. Why was I sitting in a meeting about ending my father’s life alone? I let their words sink in through my hard shell, my tough skin, and all the multiple protective layers I’d built beneath. I was numb — had been for ages. It made no sense. No, it made perfect sense. I knew it. Deep down, I always knew it. I knew it the moment I saw my dad’s eyes, hazel green like my own, wide with terror behind the oxygen mask while I asked him if he wanted me to consent to the ventilator and medical coma on the night of his accident. I knew it was over then. The rest was just a formality. Motions and window dressing. I had a part to play, and I played it, even though I knew the story would eventually end with me walking out of the hospital lost and empty-handed in defeat one night. It’s why I made the appointment. If I’d been in denial, I wouldn’t have made the appointment. Knew Death was stalking us. Watching. Waiting. Patiently living in the corner of my father’s hospital room, filling that chair no one ever sat in. Knew she traveled with me on the planes and laid down with me at night and slept with her limbs wrapped around my tense form only to rise with me again every morning. She was my constant companion, but I never acknowledged her. Felt her standing on the other side of my father’s hospital bed staring a hole through my head, but I couldn’t bring myself to her eyes — eyes that were my own in a face identical to mine, because, really, what other form would she take? The bitch.

My goal was to find out what options were available to make my father comfortable and maintain his dignity should the tide turn and the inevitable come to pass. What decisions could I make when the crisis wasn’t at a fever pitch and my head was relatively clear so that I wouldn’t have to try to make them on an emergency basis when everyone was a mess and Dad was already in pain. I didn’t want to wait until it was too late. I wanted to make the tough calls while in the eye of the storm, so that all I had to do was lash myself to the mast once the world started ending and ignore the sirens’ call to take useless and selfish heroic measures long after we’d crossed the Rubicon. Once everything was in place, I had only to stick to my guns and see it through. Sounds simple, right? Ha.

Along with all the other paperwork I was offered to review and sign, the women gave me a small booklet called Gone From My Sight. It had a blue cover with a simple illustration of a ship that made me think of some Columbus Day coloring sheet of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria I had done in the first or second grade. It seemed harmless and friendly enough and even though the cover clearly explained that the booklet was about dying, I wasn’t really prepared for what was inside this little manual on the feeding and watering and general care of the soon-to-be-dead. For the fact that once I had seen what was inside it, I couldn’t unsee it. That there was to be a me before I read it and a me after and that once I had the knowledge about how death worked that it would always be with me. That I would always know how to wield it — and expertise and a skill I didn’t want. For the news that death was a process. That, unlike we see on TV or in the movies, we are often dead long before we are dead. That, for people in circumstances like my father, dying takes days or even weeks. We move into a middle space where we are neither here nor there and straddle the two worlds for a piece of time even though the living fail to see it. I wanted to think that my dad waking from his coma and breathing and talking on his own was his will to live. It wasn’t. It was his death rally. For some of the dying, the rally lasts minutes or hours. For my father, it was a week. When I left him, I took the energy that fed the rally with me, and the balance between the two worlds finally tipped. He started to spend more and more time with Death, and less and less with me. She stayed in his room, in that chair whispering to him, keeping watch, inviting him to leave me and come with her. And he did.

The last time I heard my father’s voice was on the phone a few days before he died. I was driving to spend the evening with a friend and called the hospital. He had been too out of it to talk earlier in the day, and I thought I would give him another try. He was awake, but his breathing was labored, and he was difficult to understand. He also didn’t make much sense, as he wasn’t really in this world anymore. He spoke like someone slipping into sleep and talking to me from a dream even as he fought to stay awake. As my car climbed the overpass onto the north-bound Interstate, the post-rainstorm sunset sky an eerie purple and gold above me, his voice suddenly and clearly made sense again. Though breathy and labored, he was Dad again, just for a moment, as he said his last words to me:

“I sure wish you were here with me, Beej. I sure wish you were here…”

“I know, Daddy. I’m coming. Hang in there, and I’ll be in there in another week. I’m so sorry I had to leave, but I’m going to get back as soon as I can. I promise.”

“I sure wish you were here.”

“I know, Dad. I love you.”

And that was it. He slipped into unconsciousness while we were on the phone and the nurse took it from him and hung up. He never woke or spoke to anyone else again. Death had won. He wasn’t yet gone from my sight. But he was gone. I would have to catch a plane and take an ax to his moorings 48 hours later in order to let him fully go — to release us both from the purgatory grip that kept him out of his heaven and prevented me from passing through hell to where my waiting life wasn’t done with me yet on the horizon.

And so, the dream. The horrible, horrible dream shaken loose by recent unrelated, but traumatic events in my life. In it, I’m driving across the country from west to east. Driving from my home to the hospital, and I have my father with me, only he’s not really my father. He’s my father’s partly-dead, partly-dying body in his green hospital gown that gives him no warmth or modesty. He is cold. His skin is heavy and waxen and gray. His lifeless fish-like eyes are neither open nor closed, and his mouth gapes. He doesn’t so much breathe as air escapes him. He smells like the grave, and he’s heavy. His limbs are lifeless and inexplicably long — so much longer than my small body can wrangle with any grace. We are alone in the car — the old copper Plymouth Fury we had back in the 70s and nicknamed The Bad Penny. No other family with us. I am the only driver. The trip takes forever, and I have to keep stopping repeatedly at shitty motels where I drag him into the room myself, trying to keep him covered with the gown, trying not to bang and bruise his skin, trying to keep his body intact. Afraid that parts will stop falling off of my decaying, zombie father. The motels rooms are where it gets worse, because once I prop him up on his bed, he starts talking. Words somehow come out of his lifeless, sagging face, and they never stop. I never lay down on the other bed. Just sit helpless and trapped in the hard desk chair with my head in my hands and listen and listen and listen to the nonsense he spews while I try not to look at him. Words that don’t fit together. Other languages. Demands for things like water and food — meals he wants that he cannot eat and that I cannot give him. It’s horrifying and awful and every time I stop at a motel, I think about leaving him behind. Bolting from the room and gunning the engine and racing into the sunrise and leaving him abandoned to rot. That’s the part that’s truly horrific. That’s that part where I sit up in my bed and vomit into my hands. The part where I want to escape the gruesome specter of my dying/dead father that in no way resembles my Dad.

These things do not help the situation:

First, I still have my father’s ashes. My family needs to get it together to take him home to Chicago and scatter them. They spent a year with my mother, and now they’ve spent a year with me. They’re in a black box on the black shelves in my bedroom. At the foot of my bed. Where I sleep. Where I dream.

The other is the suitcase. Throughout my father’s time in the hospital, I kept a carry-on suitcase packed at all times. I was constantly on and off planes, so it never made sense to unpack it. At this point, it’s mostly empty, but not completely, and it’s still sitting in my bedroom next to the dresser. I have long-since retired and replaced it, as it was baggage, both literally and figuratively, that I no longer wanted to carry around with me. And yet, I still do. I think I will unpack the damn thing completely and throw it away today — along with a lot of other things.

Problem is, I know what’s inside that bag waiting for me. The little blue booklet with the ship on the cover. I know that opening the bag means seeing it again. I know it will break me. I know it will remind me that I’m already broken. That no matter how I have glued myself back together in the past two years, the cracks are there. I’m an irreparably insane person who dreams of taking her dead father’s corpse on a cross-country road trip and then throws up her dinner in bed. I’m not right. I’m never going to be. I’ll spend the day haunted with my chest hurting and my heart pounding in my throat, and tonight I’ll spend the evening alone with a bottle of red getting blind drunk to make it better. And that’s just how it is.

It’s not the dying that bothers me. Death is a friend. It’s the middle ground. It’s the process. The everything that came before it. The run-up. The knowledge that it was all rigged from the jump and that I was forced to witness the horror anyway. That I still have to witness it from time to time behind my eyelids at night. The knowledge that that’s probably not going to stop. Ever.

And so, I will do what I can to take solace from the poem in that little blue book sitting in the suitcase in my bedroom. Waiting for me. Haunting me like an old friend. The vision of the two worlds that I choose to believe, that best illustrates my real, waking relationship with Death:

“I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!”

“Gone where?”

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear the load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!” There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: “Here she comes!”

And that is dying.”

phantom limb

While you sit back and wonder why, I got this fucking thorn in my side.

I died two years ago last night.

I got the call about my Dad’s accident on January 20, 2010. It was a cold, blustery afternoon, and I was in the grip of a nasty case of H1N1. Yes, I had the swine flu. Came down with it New Year’s Day and had been in bed for almost three weeks. It was up there in the top ten of the “Sickest I’ve Ever Been” episodes of my life, and that’s saying a lot for someone who’s had three months of mono, four months of chronic strep, several bouts with pneumonia and your garden variety influenza, and has gone two full knock-down-drag-out rounds with the whooping cough in the past decade. If there’s a nasty, vintage infection to get, I’ll get it. At this point it’s hard to tell if the illnesses are what have weakened my immune system and scarred up my respiratory system, or if my shredded immune system and lungs are what let me get sick. Chicken, meet egg. It probably doesn’t even matter anymore. Point is, my insides look and feel like ground beef and broken glass.

I’d had enough of sitting around the house. Fever, aches, fatigue, and cough be damned. It was killing me. I had spent the day waiting for a call from the doctor with the results of my latest chest x-ray, fully expecting the news that I had bacterial pneumonia and was looking at an in-patient stint at the hospital . The suspense was killing me. I had to get out. Decided I would make the supreme effort to walk one whole block with the dog. He’d been patiently waiting for a short stroll all day, knowing full well that I didn’t have ten good steps in me. Right before I walked out the door, my phone rang. It was my oldest friend, a woman I’ve considered a sister since the first grade, even though we hadn’t had occasion to correspond beyond writing for years. She’d seen something I’d posted on Facebook and called me out of the blue to say she could relate. I told her what was going on and that I had myself all bundled up and ready to walk out the door and if I didn’t go right then and there, the tenuous five minute window of energy I had was going to close. I had to take advantage of my momentum and get while the getting was good.

And so, I stumbled out the door and got six houses down the block when my phone started to vibrate in the pocket of my parka. I looked at the display and saw my father’s girlfriend’s name on the screen, which wasn’t unheard of, but odd, and, I knew, couldn’t be good.

“Hello?”

“Your father’s been in an accident. He’s in the emergency room right now.”

“What…Well, how bad is it? Is it serious?”

“I don’t know what to do. You need to come home.”

My father had called me the night before. I was sick and tired and falling asleep, and I let it go to voicemail. He left me a message saying he was concerned about how sick I was and calling to check on me and that he loved me. It was the last time he was ever going to call me, and I didn’t pick up.

I stood there in the middle of the street shocked and dumbfounded. Watched my labored breath make white puffs in the icy winter air. My mind whirred. I turned around and walked home.

No sooner did I get in the door, than the doctor was on the phone calling me, explaining that my father had named me as his primary decision-maker in his advance directive and that he needed consent to put a central line in my Dad. My mother is a nurse. I almost married a doctor. I knew what that meant. I knew it was serious. Before I could ask any questions, the doctor beat me to it.

“How soon can you get here?”

That did it. I called my friend back and told her what happened and that I couldn’t catch up. That I didn’t know where to start, but I couldn’t talk. She called me back five minutes later telling me that I was on the 1030pm USAirways flight home and to get my ass to the airport. She would meet me at the hospital. And so, H1N1 and all, I got on a plane and flew home and spent the next seven weeks of my life in hell.

I flew back and forth between the Rockies and the East Coast five times in seven weeks. I spent endless hours in hospital rooms. I spent even more in lawyers offices and banks and insurance agencies and a million other places talking to a million other people trying to piece my father’s affairs together all while trying to make decisions to save his life while he laid in a coma tied to a bed. When I was back West trying to maintain my life, I’d get calls all night from the hospital asking for consent on procedures. I had four lawyers, and their calls would start at 6am, at which point I’d pull myself out of my sleepless bed and try to gut it out through another day, making calls to the ICU, to doctors, to lawyers on my way to work, going to banks on my lunch hour and trying my best to maintain my own life and job and failing at it miserably.

The man I was dating broke up with and abandoned me at a concert on Valentine’s Day because my life had suddenly gotten “too real.”

I put my beloved cat to sleep a week later when he had clearly lost his battle with cancer.

Five days after that, I discovered that my father’s girlfriend started emptying his bank accounts within 48 hours of the accident.

On March 23rd, I went to court and became my father’s guardian and conservator, which, for all legal intents and purposes, made me my father. I had the power, responsibility, and liability for every aspect of his life in addition to the power I already had to determine when it ended.

I took my job seriously. I did what I had to do. Some of it moral, some of it not. Some of it legal, some of it not. When family is at stake, there is no gray area for me. Don’t underestimate the things that I will do. When all was said and done, I exercised all my powers and duties to their fullest extent and then some. If I had to be more than one person, I wasn’t going to fuck around.

When I talked to one of my lawyers the morning after I lost my Dad, he told me, “Congratulations, you’re a dead man.” I was so amused to hear that. Just the words of comfort a grieving daughter needs. And then he informed me that my job wasn’t done. My other, more supportive lawyer (the one I didn’t fire) told me what I needed to do to administer the estate, and so began more visits to the courthouse, the appointments with the crematorium, long days on the phone with Medicare, mornings at the Social Security office, afternoons at the IRS filing five returns for back taxes, conference calls with insurance agents, trips across the country to see lawyers, and late nights of paying bills and filing accounts and statements. For months and months and months. Despite all my best efforts to keep it together, it cost me my job. It cost my my sanity. It cost me everything. In short, I lived my life as a dying and, later, dead 66 year-old man for a year, and during that time, I completely fell apart.

When my Dad upped the ante on his slow, decades-long slouch toward Bethlehem by consuming half a bottle of rum and flipping his car off of the road at 70 mph and rolling it nine times across a muddy field and into a ditch on a random Wednesday afternoon, the impact lacerated his spleen, broke his neck and back in three places, crushed his sternum, broke all of his ribs, and collapsed his left lung. The twenty minutes of CPR the ICU staff performed on him when his heart stopped a week later only rebroke every bone in his chest and turned his left lung to permanent hamburger. His entire ordeal in the hospital was about trying to breathe. Was about the fact that his lungs were destroyed. Was about the machine breathing for him. Was about getting him to wake up and weening him off of the ventilator. His respiratory system became my obsession, and it’s appropriate that respiratory failure from pneumonia ultimately killed him. In the end, it was all about being caught below the surface being unable to come up for air.

And so, the irony is not lost on me that five months after my Dad died, I came home from a hike up at 11,000 feet, laid down on the couch feeling sick, started coughing, and never stopped. I spent nine months in bed and in and out of doctors’ offices fighting for my own life, coughing up blood, unable to draw oxygen. I weathered six courses of antibiotics, had three CT scans of my head and chest, five chest x-rays, acupuncture, allergy testing, and easily 50 vials of blood pulled in an effort to find what was wrong with me. All the while, I was slowly getting worse and slipping away. My blood pressure was through the roof. My hair was falling out. I vomited constantly and without warning. I coughed so hard that I lost consciousness. I was pale with huge dark circles under my eyes. I couldn’t make it around the block with the dog. Even walking over the the ever-so-slight rise built into the center of the street to ensure rainwater runoff to the gutters at the curbs winded me greatly.The doctors finally settled on asthma as a diagnosis when I passed out cold in the little plexiglass booth during the early rounds of a pulmonary function test. The only problem with that diagnosis is that they still couldn’t tell me why. Why I was sick. Why I suddenly had the asthma. Why none of the treatments worked. Why, just like my Dad, I couldn’t come up for air despite being an incredibly strong swimmer both literally and figuratively. I was out of gas and going under fast.

Luckily, I have eventually managed to achieve some kind of balance within a margin that allows me to function. I have regular and serious asthma attacks still, and when I get sick with anything, even your garden variety cold, my respiratory system melts down nuclear-style. Thing is, however, that I’m never right. I’m never well, even on my best days, and I always feel it on my left side. My left lung is destroyed. It doesn’t function. I can’t get a full breath out of it. It feels like twenty pounds of gravel in my chest, and dragging it around is exhausting. When I get sick, it wheezes and creaks, and I feel like I’m trying to cough up overdue motor oil through a sack of river rocks and ground glass. I have a cracked and a broken rib in my back on that side from all the coughing, and they ache and throb on a good day. They hurt like a motherfucking bitch on a bad one. Like someone shoved a knife into my side and twisted. Hard. My shoulder on that side is damaged and often out of joint from coughing violently and constantly with my left hand held up to my mouth, and the muscles in my chest are toast. In short, my entire left side feels like it was in a car that flipped over in a field nine times, and it isn’t going away. From the front of my rib cage up across my arm and shoulder and back, I’m damaged goods.

Both my massage therapist and chiropractor call it my broken wing because I constantly stretch and contort myself in an effort to try and put the muscles and bones back in their rightful place and give myself relief, and, when things are really bad, I walk around holding that side of me gingerly with my arm curled up into my armpit like a baby bird who fell from her nest. They do what they can to prop me up and patch me back together, but everything slips out of place again and the wing inevitably falls apart with the coughing. My massage therapist marvels at the mess in my back and all the damage to my ribs and trapezius and says that it feels like more than a broken wing to her — it feels like I had a wing that someone ripped out at the roots. Given the shitty angelesque role I had to play for my Dad, it seems a pretty apt metaphor. And let me tell you, angels are an ugly fucking business. They’re warriors, and war sucks. I would say it was a good thing to turn in my wings after the whole messy, bloody affair that left my Dad dead and me in pieces, but the process broke the wing I originally had, and now I’m crippled and lopsided.

When people hear me cough or wheeze or hear that I’m sick again for the umpteenth time they always ask what’s wrong with me. It’s difficult to explain, really. I give them the simple answer, the medical one. I tell them I have asthma. They then have a million other questions about what triggers it, what I do about it, why I don’t get better, why the doctors can’t seem to get it under control, and have I tried this medicine or that treatment and blah blah blah. None of which is any of their damn business. All of the questions assume that I am somehow responsible for my illness, and the funny thing is that I am, but not in the way anyone thinks. Because what is really wrong with me isn’t asthma. Yeah, that’s how it manifests itself in the outward, concrete world, but on a more spiritual level what I’m walking around with are my father’s injuries. It’s a perfect mirror image. My destroyed lung, my broken wing is the phantom limb of my father. It’s my grief, my exhaustion, my stress, my war wound, my souvenir, my penitence, my punishment. It itches. It aches. It throbs. It wakes me up in the night. It makes me feel less than whole. It’s changed me forever. I didn’t choose it. I don’t want it. The transfer was automatic, out of my hands, but really, for me, not completely unsurprising. My father’s injuries took on a life of their own in the seven weeks he spent in the hospital. They were really what I tried to combat, manage, and heal in the end, and when my father died, they had nowhere else to go. And so, here they are — with me. The limb isn’t about missing my Dad. The limb is about missing the me I lost in the fight. The me that isn’t coming back from the war.

And so I just scratch the ghost when it itches and try to breathe and keep my head above the surface as best I can with only one wing.

progress & evaluation

Spring is an exciting time of year for academics. Well, exciting if you’re not the one having to write comps, defend comps, finish dissertations, defend dissertations, and generally just try to graduate. Granted, there are always tons of semester deadlines and conference deadlines, but for first and second year doc students, spring is a time when we get to observe and celebrate our more advanced colleagues’ milestones. We can bask in the glow of their reflected light, as it were. Life’s real easy out here in the cheap seats. Still, it’s a time of nervous energy and lots of good and exciting news for people we care about. It’s a time when we generally all get to cheer each other on and be happy for one another.

In this vein, I was honored to attend a friend’s dissertation defense this week. It was the first one I have observed, and it went really well. My friend was the epitome of cool and handled her committee with grace and aplomb. In short: she’s my hero. I took notes on everything from her demeanor to who she had on her committee, to theories they discussed, to suggestions they had about turning her work into a book after graduation. It was thrilling to be there at the inception of her new life as a “Dr.,” and it was a generally eye-opening experience for me that has had my wheels turning ever since.

As we gathered at a local Mexican joint to throw back good tequila and passable cervezas to celebrate her victory, several people around the table remarked on something I too found exceptional at the defense: more than one committee member described the dissertation as a “page-turner.” Wow. What an amazing compliment. Praise for your writing — any writing — doesn’t get any better than that. We were all blown away by that comment and in unanimous agreement that it made our brilliant friend’s achievement a resounding success. I decided to use it to set a personal standard for myself. I decided to write a dissertation that would be worthy of the same assessment from its readers, because, really, no one wants to read a boring dissertation. Or a boring anything. And God know, I certainly don’t want to write one. That just sounds onerous.

And so, I’ve chosen a subject to research and write about that I really like. It’s a topic that’s been a glaring whole in the academic conversation for almost 30 years now. It’s painfully obvious and big enough to drive a semi through, and yet, amazingly enough, no one has touched it. They’ve touched every aspect of the general subject around it for decades, and yet nobody has wanted to go near the bullseye right there on the lid of Pandora’s box. I’m not sure why, but the low-hanging fruit of sorts was sitting right there waiting for me to pluck it. And pluck I shall. It’s a fun topic, kind of a sexy topic, and it always makes people laugh and lean in to hear more when they hear what I’m working on. They want to know more. They have opinions on it. They want to get involved. It’s become my identity now, and it suits me just fine.

I take all of this as a good sign. I am encouraged by the compliments I get on my papers about it. I am even more encouraged that my work is getting accepted at conferences and even winning awards, although, truth be told, the latter comes as a bit of a shock to me. A welcome shock, but a shock no less. People corner me or strike up conversations about my work in hallways and elevators at conferences. I get emails from people who attended my sessions — or people who talked to people who attended my sessions. Or people who attended whole other conferences I didn’t attend where they heard about my paper in other sessions. It’s mind boggling. I’m sure it happens to lots of people, though, and it’s just new to me. Still, my research has groupies, and I have barely even started. To be perfectly frank, though, it’s not like what little I’ve written is world famous or anything. It’s just gotten a little bit of attention in a very small, dark corner of the tiny island my area of academics occupies. Perspective, please. And really, part of it is the title of the paper (I’m good with catchy titles), and, truth be told, part of it is my name. It’s odd. It’s unbelievable to people when they first hear it. It gets remembered. It gets attention. It probably doesn’t matter what I’d scribble in dull crayon on the back of a torn paper bag, if my name was attached to it, people would still sit up and say, “Who? What?” And that is by no means an achievement or anything that speaks to my skills as a writer, researcher, or…anything at all, really. It’s just a testament to my parents’ ability to give me a great, funny, slightly goofy, and quite honestly, pretty porny, name. I’m sure people are totally let down when they actually get to put a face to the name, because I’m just not that interesting.

And so, a couple of papers in, my research is off to a good start. Nothing amazing, just relatively smooth start so far, but this week came the rough part. I had a big name professor (if we have one of those) step right up and express interest in my work and in serving on my committee without solicitation. This professor has been supportive of what I’ve been doing, and I was flattered without coming right out and saying yes right away. Unfortunately, this development still lead me into uncharted academic jealousy territory with another faculty member that I didn’t expect and didn’t see coming. I was completely blindsided by it, and at a moment that wasn’t especially good for me emotionally. It wasn’t my first faculty turf war of sorts here, but it did make for a particularly unpleasant moment. Something that should have made me feel really bolstered made me feel really crummy for about 24 hours, but then I got over it and told everyone to just grow up and trust that I’m not selling anyone out or going behind anyone’s back and that I know what I’m doing with my own work. The trust has to go both ways, people. Also, perspective is a good thing. It’s just academic research. I want advice, not to be lead around by the nose, and I’m not anyone’s territory. My research is mine — good or bad, win or loose, succeed or fail. I am the one who has to live and die with it in the end.

And, while we don’t have to do comps or dissertation defenses yet, first year Ph.D. students in my program do have to create a document called a P&E, or progress and evaluation, proposal. It’s not really a big deal, nor is it a big document (mine was six pages). It’s mostly just one more annoying thing to add to your plate when you’re already busy, but it’s a little burdensome in that it forces you to assess your work and organize a statement of what you’ve done in your first year, give a summary of your proposed research, and then look waaaaaay down the road and make a degree plan that lays out the courses you want to take for the rest of your program. We’re talking years’ worth of planning. We’re talking hunting and pecking through department websites to try and sleuth out who offers what course. No, I mean who really offers what course, not what is just in the catalog but never sees the light of day. We’re talking contacting numerous professors in various departments who are complete strangers to you, your abilities, and your accomplishments to try and get a straight answer, a syllabus, and a little bit of interest out of them. We’re talking selling yourself constantly for a couple of weeks straight when you really don’t feel like it at all. And when it comes to independent study, you really have to put yourself out there on a limb and hope that someone nibbles. My P&E proposal was due today.

The process of poking at hives to see who’d come out and play with me was a little unnerving, but in the end, a good experience. I had one professor respond to my little two-page CV with a “Wow. What a great life!” Really? Ok! I had several more tell me my research was fascinating. Three expressed interest in meeting with me about it. Three agreed to do independent study with me (although, I can only do it with two classes). Everyone wanted me in their classes, but, to be honest, they probably want any warm body in their classes to make sure they meet the minimum enrollment, so there’s probably nothing to that. Still, while emotionally exhausting and time intensive, this process of feedback and exchange has been informative and encouraging. It’s also been overwhelming as I work to make strategic contacts that will please me, please my adviser, benefit my dissertation, and meet with approval from the committee that will review and approve my P&E proposal. It’s all very delicate and political with the whole chicken-and-egg, first-things-first, you-scratch-my-back-blah-blah-blah of the process. So many hoops to jump through. So many balls in the air. So many places to screw it all up. So far, so good, however. I got positive feedback from everyone I contacted, and my adviser complimented what I put together.

In the end, what’s really scary about the P&E process is the final product. I sat down and looked at it today before I sent it off and thought, “Whelp, that’s it. Your life for the next three years all on six pieces of paper.” I’ve never thought that far ahead. Never had a plan. Never felt so locked in and committed to anything, and, I won’t lie, I started to suffocate and needed a glass bottle of wine when I read it over and started to freak the fuck out. It was claustrophobic. Even more overwhelming is the way the document painted a picture of the career I mapped out for myself — of the person I was going to become. When did I become a gender studies scholar? When did I become a hardcore feminist? When did I start taking rhetoric courses? Who is this person? When the hell did I get so damn focused? Ha. I imagine from the outside looking in, most people who know me would laugh at that last statement and tell me I’ve always been focused like a laser. Funny, but I always feel scattered inside, even if I’m totally honed in with tunnel vision on the exterior. I have to admit that I was a little scared that I’m not building in enough diversity to give myself some breathing space with this plan, but, then again, maybe I need to learn to breathe with a little less room if I’m going to get anything meaningful done in any reasonable amount of time.

Really, though, I don’t doubt myself. It’s a good plan. I’m going to be happy with it. I’m pleased with how my first year is wrapping up. I know what I want and how to get it. I feel confident and powerful and like I know exactly what I’m doing and wouldn’t do anything differently. I’m where I belong. I love the skin I’m in. I’ve never been so sure in my life. I hear people out, but nobody’s voice is in my head except my own. My intuition guides me well at every turn. I’ve got good backing, and I’m honored to have the mentors I do, but I’m nobody’s bitch.

And so, I bit the bullet and turned the proposal in and figured that would be the last I’d hear of it for a while. Figured it was mostly just an exercise. Figured I could move on to grading papers and putting together lectures and filling out fellowship applications. Figured nobody would give it a second look and I’d get a rubber stamp with a couple of obligatory comments from the committee in a few weeks. Figured nobody would actually read it.

Within two hours of sending the document, I got an email in response to my proposal: “I find your topic interesting — I actually read this, rather than just glancing as I usually do. Your research is a real page-turner.”

Guess I’m on the right track after all.

dc sleeps alone tonight

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. — John 13:34-35

“Precious child,” he intoned, needling me with his teasing British accent.

“Father.”

“Come here, Prodigal Daughter.”

And with that, he pulled me into his warm open embrace and wrapped me in the heavy folds of his stiff chasuble.

With his hands around my back and my ear pulled close to his mouth he whispered in a gruff voice the crowd of priests surrounding us in the small hallway couldn’t hear, “Welcome back, my lamb. You really must stop wandering off. Stay here with us where you belong or we will hunt you down and bring you home. And you know I don’t make idle threats..”

“Yes, Father.”

And that is how this year’s Lenten journey began for me. Later in the Ash Wednesday service, when the time came for the imposition of the ashes, I knelt before him at the altar rail. He paused to consider me. He fixed me with his eyes before I lowered mine as he ground his thumb forcefully into my forehead making the sign of the cross with extra pressure and soot so as to make a forceful impression with his mark as his low, serious tone admonished, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I haven’t forgotten. In fact, it’s been all I have thought about for the past forty days. Today marks two year from the day I made the decision to end my father’s life. Two years since I got the phone call from the doctor telling me I was defeated. That I’d fought the good fight and lost. That the perfect storm of the injuries from the car wreck and the cirrhosis and the cancer had joined forces and licked me but good. That they had tag-teamed pneumonia into the ring and Dad was on the ropes and what did I want to do?

“Pull it,” I said. “Pull everything. I’m getting on a plane.”

My decision was unilateral and final. No one else will ever have to answer for it. It’s was all me.

I called my brother and told him to drop what he was doing and drive south right away. By the time he got home from work to pack his bags, he found that his fiancee had beat him to it and they were on the road.

I called my mother, who immediately walked out the door of her unit and only called the floor to tell them she’d left work and was going to her ex-husband’s bedside — his deathbed — once she was in the car so that he wouldn’t be without family for a minute more than he had to be. From the moment she got to him, he was never alone, never without his loved ones until he exited this world the following day in peace and surrounded by all three of us.

Neither of them questioned my decision. Neither of them asked any questions at all. They just did as I said. They dropped everything and went. Good soldiers who weren’t going to let loneliness stand between Dad and his fast-approaching end. When I finally arrived in the middle of the night almost 12 hours later, exhausted and numb and completely strung out, I found the nurses had left the last tube — my father’s feeding tube — for me to pull myself. So with that and the series of decisions I made over the 18 hours that followed, I ended my father’s life. And as I leaned over his comatose body and drew the painfully long length of rubber from his stomach through his dry, raw nostril, and finally set him free from all the machines except the IV that unflinchingly pumped the morphine into his veins in ever-increasing doses, I whispered to myself, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

That’s the funny thing about grief. You don’t process things in any logical, meaningful order. You’d think I’d be done, but I keep discovering I’m not. I’m so very not. Not even close. Last year, the anniversary of his death didn’t faze me in the slightest, but Father’s Day came out of left field and knocked me for a loop that lasted months. And despite the fact that my Dad has been gone for two years now, his death has been raw for me this spring, as the warm weather came early and the light and air felt and smelled like those horrible, painful, stressful weeks of 24 months ago. The PTSD kicked in in mid-March, and things haven’t been the same. I’ve been breaking down. Slowly coming apart more and more daily ever since. Hiding it well, but unraveling. Shutting down and pulling inward. But it’s good. It means I have been conserving my energy for other, more important work. It means that my psyche is finally digging deeper into the dirt and taking a torch to the bones of a ghost I don’t want to live with anymore. That I might not be forgetting, but I’m forgiving myself for all the things I did and didn’t do. Not that that makes it any easier.

And in my acceptance that I am dust, I just deepened my handshake with Death and how she comes for us all. The gift she gives and how she gave it to my Dad. The gift that made me her instrument. The Angel of Death. The Angel of Mercy. My sword terrible and mighty. The gift she’ll one day give me in what I hope will be a brief, blinding flash I won’t even see coming. Maybe it will be peacefully in my sleep. Maybe something violent and bloody like a plane crash or a headshot from the burgler I’ll mistakenly walk in on one night. I’ll gladly take either rather than languish ill and tied to a bed, devoid of my dignity in the in-between days like I made my father suffer. I kept him in a needless Purgatory for months, and if I knew then what I know now, I would do many things differently. I can’t be bothered with regret, though. It’s a useless waste of energy and emotion. I did the best I could at the time. I did what he asked me to do. All I can do is make my peace with Death and my partnership with her and prepare myself for what I hope with be the quick and merciful inevitable for me with all of my intellect and faith unchecked and intact. I hope that I can have some power over when I shuffle off my mortal coil and be accepting of the fact. Possibly even run to it with my arms open wide. We all have to go, so why not rush to it when the time comes?

And so, in the processing of processing, I didn’t follow my Ash Wednesday instructions. I pulled back again. Didn’t attend Sunday services. Dropped off the map. Disappeared from the parish. Spent Lent largely alone, both with in worship and in general. I needed the time apart to deal with things, a pause from the life around me, and so I took it. God doesn’t need me in church to see, hear, and feel me. Wherever I am, God is there, and we holed up together this Lent and got some important work done. I might have appeared to be solitary, but I wasn’t.

Last night was Maundy Thursday, though, and so I crept back into to the Cathedral to make my Holy Week return. I arrived late and slipped into my regular seat in the back on the left-hand side of the sanctuary in the pew beneath of the blue stained glass window depicting the appearance of the angel and his revelation of the Resurrection to the women at Jesus’ tomb. As before, everyone was glad to see me and welcomed me with open arms. Former co-workers, vestry members, and parishoners alike all greeted me with smiles and winks and held me close with hugs at the Peace, reminded me that I do indeed have the church home here that I’ve been seeking. At communion, the Dean nodded at me when I wrapped my hand around his as he passed me the wafer. No admonishment. Just a silent, subtle hello. Just the message that I am more than dust. That I am marked as Christ’s own and that the flock is always waiting for me whenever I see fit to return. That He knows his sheep and his sheep know Him.

The funny thing is that I didn’t want to be there at all. It took every ounce of strength I’ve had all week not to book a last-minute flight to DC and run away to worship the Triduum with who I still consider my priest and “home parish” back in Arlington. I have been feeling weak and scared and fragile and like the only place I could gather my strength was in the Christian routine I built there when I was young and my father was still alive. In the before-time when I was still “me.” There, where Maundy Thursday means the priests wash every foot in the parish while we sing “Jesu, Jesu” surrounded by our loving neighbors. Where I see grandparents wait in the aisle with their arms around the grandchildren I have watched grow up from tots. Where beautiful, familiar ice blue eyes look up at me from the bowl on before the chair after she kisses my lovingly washed foot. Where I could be sure I would hear the exact sermon I needed to hear at the exact moment I needed to hear it from The Best Preacher In The World. Where I later sit the dark midnight hour in the chapel with Jesus alone in prayer and meditation and exit into the night at 1am to find that, without fail and regardless of the date on the calendar, the dogwood trees surrounding the church have bloomed while I kept my watch in Gethsemane. Where I know what to expect with every service, know every face in the pews and welcome the company of the familiar, of those who know me intimately and support me unconditionally. Where I could await the inevitable celebratory Easter brunch at the Diner, complete with a crabcake deluxe sandwich. Where I could wrap myself in the comfort of routine and nostalgia. My urge to flee was serious. I even priced flights and considered paying the asking price. I was sure I was going to pack my bags and bolt. That I would darken the door of St. Michael’s, suitcase in hand, on Maundy Thursday. Even told my friend, my priest, to half expect me. To have my room at the rectory ready for me in case I showed.

I didn’t show, though. I gritted my teeth and gutted it out and stayed put. I white-knuckled it and dug in. I almost didn’t go to church at all, until a friend scolded me. Reminded me how important my faith is to me. Reminded me how much Holy Week is a crucial part of who I am. “I think you need to go,” he warned. And he was right. His words rattled around in my head all day, and come the evening, my car steered its way to the cathedral. To the place where they only wash the feet of twelve members of the congregation, most of whom are members of the vestry (and men). To the place where a random guest preacher, usually a bishop of some sort, gives the homilies during Holy Week. To the place that doesn’t sing “Jesu, Jesu.” To the place where I was sure I would be a face in the crowd. In the town where there are no dogwood trees at all. And yet, despite all of this, the Maundy Thursday service was precisely the experience I needed.

I was not a face in the crowd. I was among family. The sermon was eloquent, beautiful, and powerful. A truly lovely and moving surprise. There were no dogwoods, but the scent of the early-blooming cheery blossoms all around the grounds wafted into the cathedral through the open doors and windows and greeted us as the entire congregation walked en masse under the bright, full moon across the grounds singing and carrying the reserved sacrament to the chapel where parishioners would sit vigil with it an hour at a time throughout the night.

Moreso, I had a true religious experience. Per usual, I attended church alone, but I found myself in the company of two other single women roughly my age sitting near me. One was tall and willowy with her long, dark hair bundled into a bun at the top of her head revealing a long, aristocratic neck and sweeping bare the fine features and alabaster skin of her face. The other was a petite African American woman with flawless light brown skin, beautiful, noble-looking features and her hair wrapped in a colorful scarf. Both women had angelic voices, and the three of us boldly sang each hymn together in harmony, basking in the vibrations of our joined voices filling our chests, calling each other to rise to the occasion and sing out for everyone to hear. The effect was particularly pronounced when the parish sang “Now My Tongue, The Mystery Telling” as all hundred or so congregants followed the sacrament across the grounds in the night from the cathedral to the chapel with the men and women taking alternating the verses of the ancient hymn.

As we walked and sang together, at times the only women singing in the back of the crowd, we finally had a chance to look each other in the eye. We watched each other as we sang and walked — three single women attending church alone, three women complete strangers to each other, three women who had never spoken to one another except in that moment through song — connected by music and faith. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was how it was for the women who followed Jesus. If they found each other like this on the road to hear Him preach. If they met and traveled together and kept each other safe on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and search for the young rabbi everyone was talking about. If they locked eyes with each other in dumbstruck horror when they arrived there and found the terrible scenes of the Passion playing out on the streets. If they shared a mute communication of sisterhood as witnesses at Golgotha. If this is how it was for the three Marys at the foot of the cross. For the women at the tomb on Easter morning. If this is how it felt for all the women who followed Jesus, who were his truly loyal disciples, who never forsook him. We were the three Marys in our dress, our silk blouse, our khakis and jean jacket as we walked the moonlit path across the grounds and knelt together on the cold, hard stones in the aisle of the chapel, the edges and mortar biting into our skin. We were the three Marys as we bowed our heads and belted out the final stanzas and then fled into the night. When I returned to the cathedral for the stripping of the altar and final psalm, the women were gone. Disappeared like a dream that slipped from my grasp upon waking.

It wasn’t a dream, though. It was a miracle. A miracle that when I’ve been so hoarse and asthmatic, I was able to sing loud and clear and strong without so much as a single cough. That my chest finally felt unbound and loose. That I felt relaxed. That my head felt clearer than it had in weeks. It’s no surprise that singing did that to me, for what is singing except controlled screaming? The ladies and I screamed it all out at the top of our lungs, and what could be more appropriate on the evening when our Lord was handed over to suffering and death? What better way to fulfill the new commandment given to us on Maundy Thursday to love one another than to join your voice with strangers in songs of mourning and remembrance? It was like sex; catharsis in its purest form.

I spent my Lent alone and went into Holy Week with its shared anniversary of my father’s death scared to celebrate it here in my current home for sure that I would be lonely and find that this wasn’t my home after all. I am a traditional, smell-and-bells Episcopalian who likes her safe routine. I am a coward. I find comfort in the easy rhythm of the familiar liturgy. I sit in the same pew every service. I say the same greetings at the Peace. I like the same hymns over and over. I want to know what to expect. Instead of taking the safe route, however, I stuck my neck out and gave new traditions a chance this Holy Week. I went to the Maundy Thursday service I thought I wouldn’t like. I didn’t sit watch at the vigil. I attended the evening Good Friday Mass instead of the noon service as I’ve done for over a decade. Every experience has stretched me as a person, as a woman, as a Christian, as a parishioner. Every experience has surrounded me with people and reminded me that I’m not just ashes and that I’m not alone. It has been the perfect antithesis to my solo Lenten practice this year. God has decided that I’ve spent enough time in the wilderness tempted by the Devil and has led me home again and, in the process, has reminded me that home is always wherever I am for He remolds and remakes me for the place and the moment. While I still miss DC, ache for it and the people there and will light out for the Coast the very minute this semester is over, I’m not going there yet. I will stay put and worship, and I am comforted to find what I needed right here, even if I didn’t recognize it as such. I am a different person now, and I needed new roots. The changes never erase my other homes, they just simply expand my experience and resources.

And so, I went to the Good Friday service tonight in the same manner I always do: barefaced and dressed in simple black with no jewelry except the long silver chain that holds the St. Christopher’s medal that belonged to my great aunt and the small cross and medallion I received at my baptism. We sang a hymn to the tune of one of my father’s favorite Tallis pieces, one that was used in the score to the movie “Master and Commander.” The last movie my father and I saw together. The score we played over and over again in his hospital room. One of the last pieces of music my music-loving father ever heard. It was a like having him there in church with me, and the message and its comfort was not lost on me. The sermon was on the collect of the day:

“Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen”

The message being “this your family.” For that is what we are. That is what I found this Lenten season. This Holy Week. I have spent copious amounts of time thinking and praying on what that means. What my family lost two years ago. What it’s found in the two years since. How it has grown and changed. What family I have had around me all along. What family I miss. What family I have gained. How there is the family you are given and the family you choose, and how sometimes those can include one and the same. How family doesn’t end with blood. How I’m surrounded by family all the time in the people who love me, sacrifice for me, give to me without my asking, take from me without obligation, make me smile and laugh, and come running when I need them. How, wherever I call home, I have a family in Christ to worship and love and sing with. How for every thing there is a season, an ebb and flow in my life. How, when I am shattered, the pieces might not always fit back together the same way but they’re all still always me. How there’s always a warm embrace waiting in the flock wither I may wander upon my inevitable return. How the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here; faith our outward sense befriending, makes our inward vision clear.

it’s not about the hoodie

The internet is been alive with rage and protest in response to the February 26th murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL. Martin was a slight boy of 160 pounds armed with nothing more than candy, an iced tea, and black skin. He was gunned down in cold blood by a man with more than ten years and dozens of pounds of advantage on him who walks free and protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law that categorizes his actions as self-defense. In the intervening weeks the focus has shifted from Trayvon to his hooded sweatshirt. I have to admit that I find this concerning. Why? Because America — white America — needs to sit up and admit the truth to itself and others: Trayvon was not shot because of what he was wearing. Trayvon was shot because he was black.

It’s all well and good that everyone’s putting on a hoodie and saying “I am Trayvon Martin,” but here’s the fact of the matter, white folks: You’re not, and white guilt isn’t going to change that. As a brilliant friend of mine said recently, “unpack your white privilege.” The hoodie is a red herring. It’s an excuse for America to blame something other than blatant and pervasive racism in this country for the death of this young man and, let’s be honest, thousands, millions just like him. It’s not ok that Trayvon is dead. It’s not ok that his killer walks free. It’s not ok that this country gives one race the power in this country. It’s not ok that this country sees other races and their children as expendable. It’s not ok that we’re not honest with ourselves about it.

Trayvon was somebody’s son. He was a young man with a future he will never realize. We will all miss out on what he could have been, because we can’t see beyond the end of our noses. Sitting in my class discussing race theory last week, the discomfort was palpable, because we can talk gender and class and sexuality until we’re blue in the face in this nation, but we still can’t talk race The class only had one American student of “non-white” decent (although, ethnically speaking, she’s Caucasian, but all that matters in this country is skin color, unfortunately), so the discussion was largely held by white people and a couple of newly-arrived international students who are new to the nuanced complexities of racial relations in America. The young white male leading the discussion was obviously unfamiliar with people not of his own race, and he said the magic words: “Well, I’m not a black person, so I don’t know how they feel.” And that did it for me.

Here’s the deal, folks. People are people. It’s not hard to imagine how they feel. They feel how you would feel about most things. They feel the same rage, helplessness, grief, loss, frustration, isolation, and injustice that any of us would feel when faced with discrimination, oppression, threat, and murder. Everyone loves their children. Everyone is devastated by their deaths. Everyone would come straight out of their skin if their child’s killer walked free. It shouldn’t take a stretch of the white imagination to recognize the black experience in this country. Granted, no one can be an expert on any direct life experience other than their own individual one, but we should be able to recognize when justice is done and when it isn’t. And we shouldn’t tolerate the latter regardless. And we shouldn’t have to focus on what a victim was wearing, whether the case is rape, assault, robbery, or murder. Saying the hoodie got Trayvon killed is no different than saying the low-cut, knee-length cotton sundress I’m wearing today would get me raped walking my dog around my neighborhood this evening. Clothing is a performance. Clothing is an excuse. It isn’t what makes criminals act out and hurt other people. Don’t get mad about the hoodie. Get mad about the person. Get mad about the national mindset that reduces the person to race or gender. Get mad about the truth that Trayvon is dead because he was young, black, and male, and THAT is what makes a person suspicious and somehow less than a person in America still. Today. In 2012. That is inexcusable.

I have to admit that my heart breaks every time I see Trayvon’s face in the media. In that child, I see in it the face of so many boys I know and love. It’s a sweet face. It’s a face I can’t help but think was the light of his family’s lives. I think about the friends he had. The friends he would have had. The people he would have loved. The people who would have loved him back. And how that’s not going to happen now. Why? Because he was young, black, and male, and in America something that we view as criminal. As threatening. As subhuman. As disposable. We need to fess up to that. We need to be honest with the fact that many of us cross the street when we see that coming, hoodie or no, and that’s not alright. It’s so not alright. That young black man is your neighbor. He’s someone’s son. Someone’s brother. Someone’s boyfriend. Someone’s friend. Someone’s nephew, lover, co-worker, classmate, pet owner, and a million other things that makes him human. His life, his experience is not different from your own, except that he has to live it as a young, black man in an America full of George Zimmermans. God, that has to be scary. Scary for him. Scary for his mother. Again, take a minute and imagine that. It shouldn’t be a stretch. I know I feel bad enough when people cross the street to avoid me with my big dog — and yes, that happens all the time. I know the small white girl isn’t the perceived threat. Well, I can’t tell you, but I can imagine what it must feel like to be seen as the threat yourself all the time, every day, 24/7. It’s got to feel awful. It’s got to color your life. It’s got to make you wish it would stop. And you know what? We need to fucking stop it already. Stop with the guns. Stop with the gated communities. Stop living in fear of the people who live down the street, walk down the street. Stop being afraid of ourselves. Shutting yourselves away and arming yourselves in fear. THAT, my friends, is what got Trayvon killed. When we take the time to know each other and what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves, it’s a whole lot harder to see someone else’s son as something you can shoot. It becomes a whole lot harder to pull that trigger.

I get the hoodie thing. I really do. It’s a brilliant protest icon. It’s a savvy rallying point. It’s something white people can put on and make them feel like they’re doing something. The semiotics of it is something we can all recognize. The sign and the signified work together beautifully in our brains that want to believe we can do something small that will wash our hands clean. But, if we learn anything from this case, if we are going to do Trayvon and the America that killed him any justice, we need to stop relying on what he was wearing to be our rallying cry for justice and start focusing on his humanity — and ours.

It seems simplistic and idealistic to say, but this case, this turning point, needs to be the last straw for us. We cannot let it go. The protest needs to be one of honesty and accountability. We need to not pretend like racism just showed up. Like it was just hiding somewhere in some Southern backwater and we’d forgotten all about it. We need to recognize that it’s here, all around us, everywhere, every day. It’s an experience every person of color lives with every minute of their lives in America. They don’t get to take a vacation from it. It’s their reality. “Post-racial American” is a myth that only exists in the mind of white people, because we are the only ones who can afford to believe in it. We (and by we, I mean EVERYBODY) need to stop treating people of different colors as “others.” We need to stand up for black men and stand against what we keep doing to them. We need to recognize our parts in it. We need to make the change meaningful and lasting.

When I did my first master’s degree, I wrote about an organization of women in the 1930s and 40s who ended lynching as an accepted practice in the South. It was called the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and, with what they learned about community organizing from their roles in the preceding Commission on Interracial Cooperation, they worked to make it happen. Go ahead. Look it up. We don’t talk about them today, but we have them to thank for standing up for social justice and instituting social change because they dug in their teeth and they didn’t let go. It can happen, people. All it takes is saying, no. Enough. This man is a man. He is my brother, and I’m not having it anymore.

I am not Trayvon Martin, but Trayvon Martin was my brother. And I say enough. He was a man. He is our loss. And I’m not having it anymore.

it’s not over

The last moments of AIDS activist David Kirby in 1990. credit: Therese Frare, LIFE Magazine

I really want this post to be intelligent and eloquent. To not be just one long string of the f-word (per usual). To be ruled by logos rather than the pathos brimming over from every pore of me. Given that last sentence, I think you can guess how this is probably going to go. Oh well, here’s nothing.

So, while reading The New Yorker yesterday, because, as a Ph.D. student, I have tons of time for leisure reading, I came across this article called The Changing AIDS Epidemic. It’s fair to say that my blood pressure has been through the roof ever since. I will say this once, and once only, people:

AIDS is still with us. It is not cured. It is not a Third World disease only impoverished people in Africa get. It is not over. People still die of AIDS here in the United States every day.

How do I know this? Because I feel the absence of the friend I lost to the disease last fall every day. I am still haunted by his decline. How he had more than 60 pounds fall from his already-slight frame in a matter of months. How his drugs made him sicker than the disease. How he became unable to work. How he stopped eating. Stopped talking. How he became pale and dry like a piece of chalk — quickly dehydrating and slowly bleeding internally from God knows where in his gut. How it took a toll on his partner’s health, and I started to watch him waste away from stress and worry and lack of sleep and a broken heart. How I helped to care for him in his last weeks as he died of a simple stomach flu. The norovirus. That’s what killed him. Something that usually puts most of us in bed for a few days with nausea and diarrhea killed him. No amount of Pedialyte and bed rest could save him. The doctors didn’t pay attention to what was happening. They didn’t care. They’d give him IV fluids and send him home with us. Ignored our concerns until his electrolytes became so unbalanced that his heart suddenly gave out in his bedroom at home one night. His partner called 911 and performed CPR until the paramedics came crashing in his door and dragged his spouse up the stairs and pounded on his poor, broken, empty body on the living room floor for almost 20 minutes before pronouncing him dead and walking out the door leaving him there for his loved ones to cover him and sit with him until the coroner came to pick up his body four hours later. His death left a hole that affects me and everyone else who loved him on a daily basis. I can’t even begin to do his memory justice here. Or describe the chaos left in his wake. Our lives are forever changed by his passing, and it didn’t have to happen.

It happened because we don’t talk about AIDS anymore in this country. We act like it’s some artifact that killed a bunch gay guys in the 80s and was somehow cured by Magic Johnson in the 90s or caught a plane to the Congo in 2000 and was never heard from by straight, white middle class America again. Bullshit. It doesn’t matter where you are — there are people in your community living with it every day…and some of them are dying.

What really killed my friend wasn’t AIDS so much as silence about it. Even in 2011, he wore it as a personal badge of shame. He wouldn’t openly admit to having it, for fear it would cost him his job. He was afraid it would still be seen as a “gay disease,” and so his health care suffered — partly because he was afraid to advocate for himself, partly because he was the victim of cut-rate managed care under his employer’s HMO, and partly because his doctors honestly didn’t give much of a crap about the two middle-aged gay men who went to them looking for help. That’s not the kind of health care everyone with AIDS gets, but it is the reality for others. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s still 1985 for some of us here in America, and I’m here to tell you that’s not ok.

To make things worse, I downloaded a copy of Outkast’s song “Roses” on Spotify earlier this week, not realizing it was some cleaned-up, uber-Walmart censored version. About a third of the words in the song were bleeped out because they were deemed offensive. Words like “bitch,” “prostitute,” and even “bra.” Because women’s foundation garments make them dirty whores like that. I was shocked to find that among the offensive words omitted from the song was “AIDS.” As in “AIDS test.” That’s right, a lyric about responsible sexual health was bleeped out of a song in 2012. Because AIDS is offensive. People with AIDS are offensive. Because it’s dirty gay disease you get from anal sex. If you don’t talk about it, no one can learn about it, and then no one will catch it. And those who do catch it can just slink off to the margins of society and feel they have to lie about who they their whole lives are even though they’re beautiful, loving, kind, gentle, contributing members of society who do important, undervalued, and thankless jobs like teach bilingual special education kindergarten classes and die quietly in their living rooms and no one can be the wiser. Whatever you do, keep whispering the word “AIDS” in the second decade of the 21st fucking century so no one ever gets their hands dirty. So no one ever learns anything. So ignorance can reign free. So we never cure the disease, because who cares about a bunch of black Africans and aging fags?

I play my friend’s funeral over and over again in my mind. How we all stood out at his graveside on that freezing early winter day. How his partner touched his casket, choking on his tears, and said, “Goodbye, my love,” before we steered him away to the car. How I’ve spent endless hours with him at the kitchen table going over finances trying figure out how he will make ends meet and keep a roof over his head on one meager income in the months since. How I held him in his driveway last week as he bawled his grief out, soaking the shoulder of my blouse after a long day of changing all their bank accounts to take his dead partner’s name off of them — feeling like he’d erased the love of his life forever in one afternoon. It’s cruel. It’s horrible. It’s all so very unnecessary. And I won’t tolerate it. I won’t tolerate the attitude that gay people don’t matter, don’t deserve health care. That sick people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation or race or class or disease, don’t deserve dignity and treatment. That people with AIDS aren’t people. That they don’t exist here in America anymore.

I won’t tolerate whispers about AIDS. I won’t tolerate a society where those who battle it feel they have to live in secret and shame. I won’t tolerate blaming people for being sick. I won’t tolerate us acting like it’s a piece of 80s nostalgia like a Michael J. Fox movie. I won’t tolerate the media perpetuating the idea that we’re somehow out of the woods and that it’s Africa’s problem now — just something we need to send a few million dollars overseas annually for in the name of humanitarian foreign aid to make us feel awesome and lily white and absolved. Because it’s right here, people. Right in front of us. The fact that you cried at Tom Hanks’ performance in Philadelphia 20 years ago isn’t enough. Not nearly. Wake the hell up and speak up. Don’t let the media or the right wing or politicians convince you otherwise and whisper this very real epidemic away.

For shame, I say. For shame.

(ETA: I am pleased to share with you that there are some bright spots out there, and I have the incredible honor of knowing someone who works at the Ponce de Leon Clinic in Atlanta, GA. I am proud to call him my friend.

Please, do a simple Google search for local charities and clinics in your area that support your neighbors living with AIDS to see how you can get involved. They always need help and can let you know how you can work to battle the deadly ignorance that still plagues our nation when it comes to this disease.)

born under a good sign

I have a theory that everyone has a super power. Most people just haven’t figured out what theirs is yet. For example, my brother’s super power is his ability to find things. By this, I mean that he seems to come across cool and useful things that other people have lost. I all the time comment on a new t-shirt or hat or something else he’s wearing and ask him where he got it.

“Found it.”

“What do you mean, ‘found it?'”

“I mean I found it.”

“Like on the ground?”

“Yeah.”

“Wait. You just randomly found a t-shirt laying on the ground? With no one else around to own it? That you saw and picked up some random piece of clothing on the ground, took it home, made it yours, washed it, and now you’re wearing it? Something you just found in the street?!”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“What the hell, man? Who does that?”

And by “who does that?” I mean, who just spots things like clothing laying around in public, because I don’t. I never ever see those things. But then, I’ve seen his power in action. We’ve been out together at a concert, at a ballgame, walking home from a bar at night and we’ll both be cruising together down the same sidewalk, and lo and behold, he’ll spot a hat or a shirt or a scarf or something like that lying in our path that I completely missed. Like it existed on a wavelength on the spectrum that only his eyes could perceive. It wasn’t there when I looked, but it was when he did. And before I know it, he’s made someone else’s loss his gain. And it’s always something cool and fitting for him.

My theory behind the source of his super power is that it’s a zero-sum game for him. He loses things a lot, so he also finds them. Perhaps someone else is out there finding the things he loses, and he’s just cashing in on how the universe balances things out. One of the confirming factors in this theory of mine is the fact that I never ever lose anything. I’m generally pretty organized — even when I think I’ve misplaced something, I find that what I’m looking for was carefully filed away in some system that I’ve since forgotten, but there’s always a method to my madness. But because I never lose anything of my own, I never stand to gain anything of anyone else’s. There’s nothing to balance out.

I have a friend whose super power is the ability to make even the most common, cheap article of clothing look expensive and designer. She shops at Old Navy and TJ Maxx. We can have the exact same outfit from one of those stores, and I’ll look like it’s my laundry day in it, while she looks red carpet-ready. It’s amazing. She classes up everything she touches without even having to try. She doesn’t do anything special to them. She’s not a girlie girl. She’s a natural beauty with simple elegance. She’s sophisticated Old World and cutting-edge modern at that same time.Things just hang better on her. She puts them together better than most. Again, I theorize that there’s a source to her power. For her, it’s humility that balances her. She could wear the designer stuff — she has the body and the money, but she just doesn’t see the point. She likes to make do with the simple, and in doing so, makes a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. She’s also such a dear person, that she can’t help but wear her inner beauty on the outside. It gives her a glamour that somehow bends and refracts the light around her to create the optical illusion that those clothes she bought on the clearance rack at Target make her look like a million. She has a super power called style. The best part is that she makes everything, including you, seem more fashionable in her presence. Instead of feeling frumpy by comparison, she manages to somehow elevate the whole room just by walking into it. She’s a special soul indeed.

So, what is my super power? Well, I’ve got a couple, but my main, signature power, my golden lasso/invisible airplane/bulletproof bracelets, is my ability to find and secure rock star parking everywhere I go. By this, I mean that I will get an open parking space on the street directly in front of every and anywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s popular a new restaurant, a store on Black Friday (which I don’t participate in, in reality), opening night at the opera, or the freaking U.S. Capitol on Inauguration day, I will get to park my car front and center and walk right in. Anyone who has spent any amount of time driving anywhere with me can absolutely, positively vouch for this ability. The best part is that my power has transitive properties that apply to any car in which I am riding, as long as the driver is willing to follow my driving directions to the spot. It might seem like a silly super power, but trust me, it’s handy to have, and you’d appreciate it if you were out with me. I can make your life easier and let you feel like a V.I.Fucking.P. at a busy/popular venue.

There are three main components to the source of my power, which, truth be told, is really more smoke and mirrors than a gift from the universe:

1. Patience and strategy. I am not too proud to go around the block a couple of times. I do this with the belief that a.) a space will open up and b.) I deserve to park right in front of wherever I’m going. Sometimes, I settle for walking down the block, but I almost never, ever have to walk in from another block, unless circumstances are beyond my control or I decide to settle, which almost never happens. That’s just not in my nature. At. All. The parking thing is a point of pride for me now. I also have an uncanny ability to notice people in their cars or walking to their cars and read their body language at a glance to tell whether or not they’re leaving the vicinity and opening up a space for me. That empathic sixth sense of mine allows me to read and anticipate others’ actions to be able to use the situation to my advantage. I know how to cruise and observe quickly and efficiently. I can see where the opportunities are. Too bad I can’t do the same with investing.

2. Kick ass driving skills. I am not afraid to cut across 3-4 lanes of traffic to get to a space that is open or opening. I’m not afraid to whip a U-turn on a tight street. I can react and maneuver a car with incredible skill. My parents taught me well how to be an assertive, but defensive, driver who can move a vehicle deftly and safely. I’m pretty nimble behind the wheel, and driving a stick helps with speed and agility. (Now watch — I’ll be in an accident in the next week to make me karma’s bitch and take me down a deserved notch or twenty for bragging like this. Knock wood.) Moreover, my mother made sure I was an expert at parallel parking at the age of 15. Being able to parallel park was an important skill to have in a beach town…if you wanted to go to the peace. Her philosophy was that parallel parking was a skill you had to master to be worthy of a license (used to be a part of the licensure road test), and I still agree with her to this day. If you can’t park your car, you don’t deserve to drive it. And so, between the fact that I know what the hell I’m doing and the fact that I drive a Japanese compact, I can whip my car into the smallest of spaces at the curb in record time. I can put a car into spots other people either drive right past or spend 15 minutes listening to the direction of three friends trying to squeeze into only to give up, drive on, and park six blocks away. I thank my mother for making me capable of spotting an opportunity and for ensuring that I could take advantage of it.

3. Good, dumb luck. This is the gift from the universe part, and perhaps the real super power itself. I have preternaturally good fortune. I always have. My mother was even remarking on it again yesterday. She started to attribute it to the fact that I’m observant and outgoing — that I tend to keep my eyes open and be in the right place in the right time. I get up next to the right people, win them over with some eye contact, a silver tongue, and a bit of the blarney. So, ok. Maybe I’m a bit of a master manipulator without meaning to be, but it’s really not so much that, except for the fact that I do look people right in the eye, and that tends to draw folks in. Also, I never met a stranger, so it’s easy to make strategic allies. I’m painfully outgoing. I look for relationships. No sooner had Mom hypothesized all of this that she immediately backtracked and said, “No, that’s not it. You were just born under a good sign. You’re just lucky. Everything always works out for you.”

She’s right. I’m charmed. My sister-in-law said a while back that I get whatever I want. Granted, the things I want are simple and few — like a good parking space. Pretty easy to grant those wishes. But she laid it out. I want to get into a school, I do. I’ve never been rejected from any place I’ve applied to. I want a job, I get it. I’ve never had an interview and not been offered the position. I decide I want to move somewhere, of course that’s going to happen, too. And she’s right. It does. Now, maybe I’m just aiming low. Picking low-hanging fruit. But, I don’t think so. I also work my ass off to make things happen. I bring my A game. Luck is probably 90% competence, and I make sure I have that. I do my homework. You can’t get the good parking space if you can’t park the damn car. No one was ever going to do things for me, so I made sure I knew how to do them myself. Always have.

This is not to say that that bad things don’t happen to me. They do. And when they do, they’re not just bad, they’re motherfucking batten-down-the-hatches, Katie-bar-the-door, get-in-the-goddamn-bomb-shelter catastrophic. We’re talking life and death. Fire and brimstone rains down without let-up. It sucks. I’ve had to make some really hard choices and deal with some soul crushing losses. I’ve had to live with myself in the aftermath, too. Had to live with what I couldn’t control and what I could…and what I did with that control and who or what that makes me. I can’t dwell on that, though.

But when it comes to the small stuff, the day to day stuff, I’m crazy fortunate. In the balance, I think the way the skids are greased for me on the mundane probably strikes a balance with the ugly, so I can’t complain. It works itself out. So, I don’t dwell on the ugly too much, except to process it like I do here. The good outweighs it. It empowers me. I always land on my feet no matter the height of the fall. There have been times I’ve looked down and saw the ground rushing up to meet me from a hundred stories below and thought, “oh man, this is it,” but each time fate gives me that instinct, that power of self-preservation to gut it out and twist my middle head first at the very end, and all four paws safely meet pavement at the last minute. Someone…something…me…always comes between me and disaster, and I’m thankful for it. It kind of makes my life easy. I try not to be too confident in my luck saving my ass all the time, but I have to admit that part of me does rely on it — the part that sees worry as a waste of time. I know it will all work out. It always does.

Confession time, though: I probably take my luck more for granted than I should. I’m an admitted scofflaw. For the most part, I’m a good citizen. I’m no criminal or anything, but truth be told, I see rules as bendable. Sometimes they just don’t apply to me. I bullshit my way out of things all the time — tickets, penalties, extra costs for things. I don’t lie. I just…bring people around to see things my way. I don’t take “no” for an answer. I won’t go unnoticed, unless I want to. I suppose that makes me a spoiled brat, but it’s not like I expect it. I just don’t see the harm in trying…because I know I’m gonna get lucky. My poor brother has none of this. It’s like there was a finite account of luck for our generation in our family, and I didn’t just soak up the lion’s share as my birthright, I took it all. He has zero luck. None. If he steps out of line in the slightest, he gets caught. He gets punished. I get away with murder. He’s lived a life of penalties and slaps on the wrist for doing things that everyone else does without getting caught. He can’t get anything past the universe, because I’ve somehow put his account into deficit. It kind of sucks. Sorry about that, brother. You deserve better. You’re actually a better person than I am, but I got all my luck and yours, too. Again, it’s that pesky universal balance thing. Only so much to go around.

So, why do I bring this up? It came to mind last night when I almost finally got what’s been coming to me for a long time. I have a dog. He’s a Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog. He’s giant, white, and very, very furry. He’s kind of hard to miss. In fact, he’s an attention magnet. It’s kind of stultifying the hypnotic effect he has on people. They can’t see him and not fall at his feet. He has powers. I think he might have my charm and luck, actually. We’re a pair. But my point: He’s a breed that’s bred to wander long and far. They’re bred to be independent and stubborn and untrainable. To work on their own without human supervision or command. He’s kind of the perfect dog for me. We have so much in common. And yet, he’s an off-leash dog. He came to me at age 6 or 7 after spending nearly all his life on the streets. He was starving and didn’t now a single command. No sit. No stay. No nothing. He was baffled as to how to even walk through a door — he stood at the hinges. Windows and stairs confounded him. He’d been living outside and eating garbage. He didn’t know what a house was. Two years later, I’ve got him trained on voice command, but there’s more to it than that — we have an agreement of mutual respect.

I’m not his “owner.” We picked each other. He stays with me, travels through this world as my companion glued to my knee because he chooses to, not because I’ve attached him to a leash and made him stay close. He stays close to me because he’s my lieutenant. My second. My other half. My guardian. My 125 pounds of loaded gun I take everywhere with me. And trust me, I am what he protects. I’m his moving castle, and no one’s gonna storm it. It’s really quite impressive in action. I don’t take it lightly. That sweet, friendly, mellow, dopey-looking boy who loves to let strangers pet him and walks at a snail’s pace can turn into a wall of snarling, charging hate with teeth bared and a growl that makes the pavement vibrate if required. It’s happened more than once. Again, a word from me is all that it takes to stop him in his tracks or call him off. I speak, he freezes (this is not to say that he won’t take off and totally ignore me to chase a squirrel — all bets are off with wildlife). We trust each other. We’re a team. We both have agency. He’s wicked smart and can clearly take care of himself, same as me. Our relationship is one of conversation and negotiation. I’m the boss, but I rarely command. We can communicate with just a look. We’re in it together. That’s how I know he’d lay down his life for me. He is the quintessential man’s-best-friend kind dog everyone wishes they had. I recognize that he’s probably one of a kind, and I relish every day with him. He’s amazing. Yesterday, he came with me to the chiropractor (because, as I said, he goes everywhere with me). As the doc was leading us down the hall to a treatment room, he called my dog to follow him. My dog stayed glued at my side. I had to explain that he wasn’t going to go anywhere with him. He was waiting for me to take a step before he did. He was walking with me. My chiropractor has three huskies who are sweet and well-trained, but full of energy. He found that kind of stalwart loyalty impressive. To be honest, so did I. I constantly do. But then, like I’ve said, I’m lucky.

I don’t like putting my teammate, my friend, on a leash like he’s my slave. And so, I usually don’t. When I do, we both resent it, and we immediately turn into the two Stooges. We don’t know how to act or move or relate to each other with that rope between us. I always get it off of him as fast as I can an apologize for it. And so, I’m out there every day with nothing but our voices linking us, knowingly breaking the law. Leveraging that luck of mine. Just begging for that hefty ticket if we ever get caught wandering around the city without a leash. I’m long overdue. I keep waiting for it to happen. Last night, it almost did. See, we take a walk around 9pm every evening. Me, and the big white dog…and our two black cats. Don’t ask. It’s crazy, I know. I didn’t train anyone to do it. They just all started coming along. No leashes. Just voice command. We move through the neighborhood together like a wave of mammalia, talking to one another in our own little ways. I realize that I’d be burned at the stake as a witch in another century for this little spectacle. It gets comments. People take pictures. But so far, no police attention, despite the fact that I have three off-leash animals with me (and, come to think of it, two of them now have expired licenses, too). As we headed out last night, we got about a third of the way down the next block before I noticed a cop car on the corner checking me out. It was my incredible luck that I noticed him from that distance in the dark. He stopped. The cats immediately cheesed it — good little thugs that they are. The dog sensed the silent tension in my suddenly-alert body language and instinctively pulled up beside me and sat. I put my hand gently on his neck and scratched softly under his collar. And so it went on like that. A Mexican standoff — us standing in the yard like statues, and the cop waiting for us to tip our hand and make a move. Waiting for us to finch, for my dog to take off and separate from me, betraying me by making it obvious that he was sans leash. But he didn’t. He just sat there calmly at my hip. And I didn’t move either. Just stared down the cop, daring him to come over and check us out. Minutes passed. Suddenly, the car’s blue and red lights started to spin overhead, his siren wound into a pealing wail. I braced for his approach, but he pulled a left turn and tore out of the neighborhood to answer another call. Saved again by luck, my brood and I regrouped, turned south, and headed down the block. We concluded our walk uninterrupted, unmolested, and unticketed…yet again.

I know I’m pushing it, though. I know my number will come up eventually. Until then, I’m going to continue to try my limits and do things my way, because I’m a brat like that. I can do it, because I’m fortune’s daughter. She arms and protects me and mine. Of all the super powers to have, I have to say it’s a pretty good one.

no.

just no. stop calling me. stop calling me. stop calling me. stop calling me. stop calling me. stop crying into my voicemail at all hours of the night. stop talking about wanting to come over. stop making me wonder if you are the reason why the dog barks in the night. stop drinking so much. stop self-destructing. stop thinking about me. stop making threats. stop making me consider calling the police. stop. stop. stop. just stop. i’m tired. i’m busy. i don’t need this. you are making me insane. you scare me. go away. i do not care what happens to you. i do not care what you do to yourself. that was years ago. i’m happy without you. you being anywhere in any part of my life, even just my phone, is making me very unhappy. i delete everything. i do not want any part of it. i do not want you to do anything to me or involve me in any way. i did not want to run into you. i didn’t ask you to touch me. that was a week ago. it was coincidental. stop it already. it is not my fault that seeing me made things go from bad to worse for you. i don’t think that is really the case at all. it is not my fault that you are making excuses. it is not my fault that your life is in ruins. it is not my problem. you are not my problem anymore. you hear me?! YOU ARE NOT MY FUCKING PROBLEM.

why are you making yourself my problem?

table for one

There’s a great scene in “The Lonely Guy” where Steve Martin’s character arrives at a crowded, posh LA restaurant to dine by himself. The snooty maitre’d greets him with an armful of menus and asks how many are in his party. When Martin replies “I’m alone” the entire restaurant stops their eating and conversation to watch him do his walk of shame to his seat under the unforgiving scrutiny of a spotlight. Martin is so discombobulated that he orders a “todka and vonic” and is further embarrassed by the coterie of waiters who noisily clear the extra settings from his table.

Tonight, I guess that’s me. Only it isn’t me. I’m currently well-ensconced at the bar of my favorite neighborhood sushi restaurant — alone, but not the least bit lonely. See, dining alone is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. It’s right up there with going to the movies alone, only better. It’s an extravagance I normally reserve for travel, but my last two trips haven’t allowed for it, and, well, truth be told, I’m out celebrating. Celebrating the fact that I didn’t die Nick Cage-style in a shitty motel room in the fucking shithole that is Las Vegas a week ago.

See, when I get sick, I get sick. We’re not talking “whoa, I feel crappy, better take some Ny-Quil and pray I don’t have a hangover in the morning” sick. We’re talking weeks-in-bed, battle-for-your-life, fighting-for-air, coughing-up-blood-from-the-scars-in-my-lungs, take-me-to-the-ER sick of epic, Biblical proportions. Ny-Quil is for pussies. Amateur hour.

Thanks to an utterly horrible combination of a virus (most likely influenza, according to the ER doc — which my body can fucking eat for breakfast, at this point), my soul-crushing asthma, and the warm, dry climate of Vegas that was the worst possible place for me this time last week, my body’s ability to cope completely bottomed out seven days ago. To say nothing of the fact that Vegas sucks balls. I could have driven through that craphole one night on my way to the coast and just called it good. That dump has absolutely nothing for me.

Flying didn’t help. The minute we gained altitude a week ago, I knew I was in big trouble. I’m an expert flyer. Usually asleep before the wheels leave the ground. But not that trip. Between the perfume that doused my seatmate and the air pressure in the cabin, I went from sick to critical the minute I landed. Completely unable to draw oxygen. No sooner did I walk through the smoke-filled casino to get to my room did I know I needed to place an immediate and wheezy call to the airline and get on the next flight out of town after my conference presentation the following morning. Sadly, 6:45pm was the best they could do. Still, I took it. It was a cheaper flight, too. Not that that mattered. I just wanted the fuck out of Dodge ASAP.

I woke the next morning fighting for air. The kind of fighting that a drowning person does. The frantic clawing through the interminable darkness for the surface and the oxygen and light it promises that says HOLY SHIT I’VE STOPPED BREATHING. Panic. Gasping. Shit your pants terror. The fight that fills you with adrenaline as your wake up call. Let me tell you, it sucks. I started my day on three hours of sleep sure I was about to meet my end before dawn alone in a Vegas motel room that had a 30 year-old phone and cigarette burns on the nightstand. I was terrified. Not of death. She and I are old friends now. I was terrified of the place and time. I know I’m probably going to die young and drowning on my own phlegm in my sleep one night soon. With these lungs, I wager I have ten years at the very best. I know I might deserve a lot of shitty things. I might even deserve a lot of shitty ends, but buying it in a shitty Vegas motel room isn’t one of them. I knew my mother would never get past that, and so I fought like hell. Fought to the surface and to the air. Fought through the panic. Knocked the crappy lamp that was older than I am off the scarred table in an effort to turn it on. Sat up in the dark and hacked my lungs clear and exhaled. Sat there breathing dry, ravaging air into my raw throat, praying every second.

Then, I burst into tears. I laid there hugging my lumpy pillow under my thin blankets, quickly calming myself because I knew that the panic and the snot that came with crying would only make it worse. Hating the crying because I didn’t need or want to do it. It was an innate, instinctual, involuntary response, not an emotional one. And crying was is bitches. I was better than that. I capped the well and dried my eyes. Got up. Splashed cold water onto my sleepy face in the moldy bathroom sink, got into bed with my iPad, and got back to work preparing the presentation that I had to give in a matter of hours.

This wasn’t my first sick “business” trip. I had a similar experience going to New York for the first time when I was 24. I was a new acquitions editor for a publications company that Lexis-Nexis had recently purchased. I was learning the ropes at the public library there. I had been battling tonsillitis for months, and my fever (and infection) flared again the night before my trip. Being young and eager to please a boss who didn’t like me much, I boarded the train that morning regardless of how bad I felt. I was immediately sorry. I suffered the entire day under the hateful eye of the boss who resented the fever that wracked me with chills as much as the short skirt of my hounds tooth spring suit despite my best efforts to shoulder my share of the workload. Finally, at 5:00pm, she told me, “go home.” Meaning home to Washington. Sent me out into the cold spring rain to try and catch a cab to Penn Station at rush hour when there were none to be had. I walked the mile in the ice-cold, pouring rain in my short sleeves and stockinged legs with my suitcase dragging behind me. I got to the ticket booth only to be told that a train was leaving for DC RIGHT THEN from track 11, and that I should run to catch it. And run I did. Ran like hell right to the end of the platform chasing that train as it pulled out of the station, my little legs carrying my petite frame as fast as they could in heels. The conductor egged me on every step of the way. Leaned out of the door of the caboose yelling at me as I hauled ass alongside as best I could. Swooped down and scooped my bag out of my hand and onto the train. Swooped down and scooped me up around my waist and onto the car as the platform ended below me, my feet dangling above the tracks as he hauled me, one-armed, onto the train like something out of a scene in a movie and summarily dumped me, soaking and shivering, into a seat next to an incredibly large, incredibly handsome bald, black man with the order to take care of me. I remember the incredibly large man laying me out across a row of seats and spreading his expensive camelhair coat over me as a blanket before I passed out. I woke up outside of Newark with a raging fever and noticed that my hero was sporting a Super Bowl ring on his left hand. I deliriously asked, “Is that what I think it is?” only to have him tell me, “Yes, child. Hush. Sleep now,” before I passed the fuck back out. I only came around again outside of Philly when he reclaimed his coat before disembarking. At that point, I slowly pulled to consciousness, stripped naked in my seat in the nearly empty car and changed into dry sweats from my overnight bag. Four months later, after the doctors told me they had no antibiotics left to save me, I had my tonsils out. When I came out of the anesthesia on the operating table, the doctor was inches from my face saying, “Oh, those HAD to come out.” To this day, my throat is still a big, uneven hole from where they had to carve out all the black and silver necrotic tissue. I lost 15 pounds in one week and it took me months to learn how to swallow again without choking. Still, I love New York. Every trip I went back was better than the last. I don’t think that will be the case with Vegas. Fuck Vegas. I’m never going back.

And so, here I am alone in a sushi restaurant on a Friday night. In my favorite sushi restaurant eating my favorite food and drinking cheap, hot sake surrounded by raucous families and attractive couples out on first dates. I’m wearing dirty jeans and a sweater with a hole in it and no make-up and I couldn’t be happier. Couldn’t feel more alive. I didn’t have to be here alone. Two different men contacted me to see what I was doing tonight, but I didn’t want to be with them. Didn’t want to be with anyone but myself. That’s the beauty of dining alone. You don’t have to negotiate with anyone about where you eat and when. You don’t have to make conversation. You can be whoever you want. You can even be yourself. You can sit and eat in silence and watch the 76ers demolish the Golden State Warriors on the big screen behind the bar even though you couldn’t give a damn about the NBA. You can listen to the Japanese sushi chefs argue with each other and flirt with the Mexican kitchen staff. Listen to them flirt with you, too. You can sit and read or blog or do whatever the hell you want because the owner likes you and gave you the wireless key. And how is sitting here working while downing sakes not better than spending the evening in some bullshit Starbucks drinking lame lattes that cost as much if not more? To say nothing of the two men who were old enough to be my father buying me rounds number three and four just because they were awed by how fast I can type on my iPad and wanted to talk to a pretty girl. Because men just can’t stand to see a woman out alone without hitting on her. There’s a law about that or something. I probably shouldn’t have had those last two rounds, but what the fuck? This is life. I’m lucky to be alive and well and celebrating it. Carpe diem and bottoms up, boys. It’s ok if you want to think I’m ten years younger than I am even though I can obviously hold my own in conversation about politics and law and sports and business. And after all, isn’t that what you wanted in this evening’s little geisha anyway? A brainy girl you can fantasize into a pliable idiot? Whatever gets you off. I’ll drink your booze and blog my blog and stumble home alone, but satisfied.

Because, that’s how I want it. I’m free. No one tells me what to do. I love my alone time. Crave my own company. I realize that’s odd, but there’s nothing more decadent than doing what you want to do when you want to do it. That’s what makes life good. Makes it worth living. The freedom. The being the captain of your own destiny. I don’t know how long it will last, but I cheated death again. Got paroled this week, and I’m going to drink to that. And eat at restaurants alone and anonymous. A mysterious stranger in my own town. Because I can.

Should I be drinking while recovering? Probably not. Do I give a damn? Definitely not. I’ll do what I want. Life is short. I’m self-destructive. Sick of being good. Good gets you nowhere faster. I can be better to myself tomorrow. I think I’ll have another drink before I call it a night.

After all, tomorrow is another day.

woman’s best friend

We’ve been apart for nearly a week — me too sick and laid low to care for you. You know things are bad when you can’t even walk your own dog. I went to pick you up from the sitter yesterday. Took me two hours to shower and dress, because I had to keep stopping and laying down. Struggled to stay awake on the drive across the town. Got there and found you napping in the garage. I woke you gently and watched the recognition melt across your face as your eyes met mine. You slowly stood and moved to where I sat on the stoop. Bowed your giant head and tucked it gently under my chin so I could kiss between your big brown eyes, tail sailing back and forth behind you as I hugged my arms around your thick neck and buried my nose into your white fur…inhaling.

I let you out early this morning and then slept all day today. Stayed under the covers until past 4:00pm moving through a series of deep naps punctuated by intense dreams and bouts of coughing. You stayed next to my bed all day, your soft snoring rumbling the room around us. Reassuring me of your presence whenever I came to the surface momentarily. When I finally pulled myself into the shower and stood with the hot water coursing over me, I opened the window to see the sun already starting to set over the Rockies in the distance. You had patiently kept watch over me and sacrificed your own needs for mine.

You were so pleased as we headed out into the yard toward the car. Grin on your face, bounce in your step, trying to engage me in a long-overdue game of romp-and-chase, but quickly seeing my limitations as I fumbled with my keys and stumbled toward the door to open it and let you into the backseat. You dutifully climbed in and rode with your head out the window feeling the breeze that blew back your ears.

We reached the park and parted ways at the gate, as always. You on patrol to sniff and mark your territory, keeping all of us safe from invisible wolves and bears. Me moving toward the other people in the center of the park. The light was fading and the crowd was thin. I immediately noticed that I had forgotten to wear a hat and marveled at my stupidity. Felt the bitter wind blow through my still-damp hair giving me a chill. Knew I wouldn’t last long like that. Coughed and blew my nose with a well-used paper towel I found deep at the bottom of my vest pocket. My body ached and buzzed with exhaustion.

I lost sight of you as you rounded the bend for the far side, made no effort to track you as I stood in the middle of the park in clothes that didn’t feel like they were quite mine anymore. My ears congested, my head thick and heavy and disoriented. Facing east, my thousand-yard stare into the middle distance barely took in darkening sky splashed with gradations of dark blue and gray as my mind wandered in and out of day dreams about summer picnics on the Thames, my puffy junior prom dress, that huge wind farm that appears without warning around the bend in the road in the middle of Kansas, cherry blossoms, and that stretch of sidewalk around the Tidal Basin by the FDR Memorial that doesn’t have a railing where I worry that the crowds are going to push someone in.

I didn’t notice the way the park had emptied. That all the other people and dogs had slowly peeled away as the sun had set. I was cold. Wobbly and weak. Just as my knees swayed and buckled slightly under me, I felt your warmth. The massive, familiar weight of you against my thigh, leaning into me, propping me up. Your shoulder suddenly under my hand. You’d come back for me. Returned at the end of the party to claim your slot on my dance card. My loyal guardian. White knight and charger all in one. You were the one what brung me, and you were taking me home. I gently closed my fist around a hank of your thick, warm fur and let you lead me toward the gate, steadying me over the uneven sand as we made our way home together.

A girl and her dog.